A radio station with an unusual and highly laudable purpose, Radio La Colifata was established in 1991 as the world’s first station run by the inmates of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, the project is still going strong. We decided to check out one of the transmissions.
Dr. Alfredo Olivera was still a psychology student when he dreamed up the idea for Radio Colifata. By putting inmates in charge of a radio station and letting them tell their stories, many benefits could be realized at once. The inmates would gain a sense of autonomy, allowed to talk about whatever they wanted with the assurance that people around Buenos Aires would be listening. Those who hear their stories on the radio might come to the realization that not all asylum patients are dangerous lunatics, bolstering the reputation of mental health. And by giving the patients a voice, Radio La Colifata would help restore sense of community which is lost by being locked away.
Attending the broadcast of La Colifata turned out to be an adventure. Upon arriving at the Dr. José T. Borda Neuropsychiatric Hospital in the southern barrio of Barracas, we were a little confused. I don’t know what we expected to find, but this was just an abandoned building. A woman at the corner bar verified it was the correct place, so we ventured inside. Everything inside the hospital was rundown. Stray dogs roamed the hallways along with feral cats. Jürgen hesitated, so I went further indoors on my own. Turning a corner, I almost collided with a man who clearly wasn’t playing with all his marbles. And who had recently peed himself. Confirmation, at the very least, that we were in the right spot, and the only time I’ve ever felt relieved to run into a piss-drenched crazy man.
The hospital was huge, and as we explored, we realized it wasn’t completely desolate. A few staff members and patients wandered the halls, in addition to the animals. Eventually, we found a way into the back courtyard, where the unmistakable sounds of a radio broadcast could be heard. About 30 people were sitting in a semicircle around a desk, and we grabbed a spot toward the back. The doctor acting as the show’s emcee walked around the group, occasionally handing the mic to one of the inmates. The first speaker, a rather young kid with a huge bush of curly hair, complained about the state of the hospital. Another man talked about the negative perception of locos, arguing that, after all, everyone is crazy in some way.
We didn’t stay for a long time, fearful of the microphone being thrust into our hands, but came away with an appreciation for the program. And we learned that the reason for the hospital’s pitiable state, is that Argentina has ordered the closing of all mental hospitals. Their functions will be moved into general hospitals. Just a few weeks ago, the gas in Dr. José T. Borda was shut off.
The first time I’d heard of La Colifata was in Spain. One of the more famous Spanish rock bands, El Canto del Loco, recorded an entire album with members of the station. Check out Quiero Aprender de Ti, one of the band’s best songs, which was taped at La Colifata.
Colifata, by the way, is lunfardo for “amiable crazy person”.